That abstract expressionism was one of the boldest, most influential international artistic movements of the twentieth century is not hard to believe. Generations later and the powerful, if controversial creativity of these vast, vibrant canvases still hangs large. It broke the norms and changed the game for artists all over the world, and saw New York supersede Paris as the art capital of the world. In the UK’s first collective exhibition devoted to the subject for over 50 years, the Royal Academy’s presentation of these momentous works makes for an unmissable show.
The term ‘abstract expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 in relation to the new artistic phenomenon that exploded out of America after the Second World War. It wasn’t a self-defined movement – the exhibition illustrates the variety of styles and ideas that stimulated its associated artists – and yet they were all responding to the same climate of catastrophe and anxiety that marked the post-war era. The works are all characterised by big themes and emotions ranging from anger and despair, confusion and the unconscious. Their method is abstraction; their intention is expressiveness.
Initially, the daring scope of these artists was as much frowned upon in Europe as it was revelatory for America. A French critic commented at the time ‘why do they think they are artists?’ He was in part referring to the new technique of painting embraced by many abstract expressionists, who would hurl paint over their canvases in wild, improvisatory freedom. The result is that in many of these works, the image becomes less striking than the haphazard intensity with which the paint itself has been transferred to the canvas – all is in the conveyance.
One of the pioneers of this movement is Jackson Pollock, whose signature style has become particularly synonymous with our understanding of abstract expressionism as a whole. In 1943, commissioned by Peggy Gugenheim, he created his largest ever canvas, Mural, by laying it on the floor and dribbling paint on it. It was milestone work, followed up with Blue Poles in 1952: using his entire body, Pollock was recording the kinetic essence of paint, his physicality playing a role in what he called ‘energy and motion made visible… memories arrested in space’. It’s notable that the movement is also referred to as ‘action painting’; to view a Pollock canvas is almost to relive the experience of its creation.
Another key artist is Mark Rothko. Though he refused to adhere to any so-called movement, his abstract work during the 50s and 60s was underpinned by a similar quest to capture powerful human emotions – namely ‘tragedy, ecstasy, doom’. Rothko’s distinctive paintings, which he would emulate again and again, showed tiers of suspended rectangles, each time experimenting with different use of shape, colour and light. The paintings have been variously interpreted: heavily influenced by mythology and philosophy, he also referred to them as ‘façades’.
A reminder of the diversity of this movement and its evasion of categorisation is Willem de Kooning, whose style is more pictorial, with an interest in the female figure and the erotic. Through vigorous brushwork, his famous Woman series shows a recurring depiction of a fragmented female body, like a Picasso painting broken apart. But as in paintings such as Villa Borghese (1960), and its broad strokes of green, yellow and pink, de Kooning would repeatedly make a return to experimenting with more abstract imagery.
The exhibition is largely dominated by the work of male artists, but one of the standout canvases which comes bracketed under the ‘late work’ section is by Joan Mitchell. Comprising of four panels, her Salut Tom (1979) is an ethereal scene of sunlight and shadow. It’s a positive explosion of energy, with a title that commemorates Thomas B Hess who championed abstract expressionism. In many ways, the work is a fitting place to finish for an exhibition that does the same.
For indeed, Abstract Expressionism may well have been borne out of the trauma, devastation and anxiety of the early century, but it is a phenomenon of renewed creative energy. Its canvases demonstrate a renewed confidence in painting and art itself, one that would give rise to the development of later artistic movements. Visceral, demanding and alluring, its artists have created works of a universal language that seem still so fresh and alive.